Local Mic: Amir Kelly



Amir Kelly is a California-based R&B and pop singer with a love for performing. He recently released his first single, “MAUI,” and just released a stripped down version of it on Wednesday, March 27th. Despite singing about a life of luxury, Kelly is no stranger to the grind. From battling cancer to cleaning toilets at Starbucks, Kelly’s love for vocal performance and songwriting kept him going. Blended’s Jessica Doherty spoke with Kelly about his experiences and the differences between his two versions of “MAUI,” the “daydream that turned into a song.”

Tell us a little about yourself as an artist and how you started songwriting.

I’ve been doing music my entire life, I started singing when I was around three. My mom always said I was singing before I was talking. Every career day I was dressed up as a superstar.  My mom is from India and immigrated in her teen years and my dad is black. My heritage definitely influenced my musical taste and I like to use my heritage in my music, in my fashion, and in my visuals.

When I was 18, I was diagnosed with stage three cancer and I survived it by the grace of God. After that, I knew music was my calling. Ever since I beat cancer, it amped my hustle a lot. A lot of teenagers look at life like it's always promised, and it changed the way I look at the world.

Who are your biggest inspirations for your music?

I’m the biggest Beyonce fan in the whole world. I think she’s a great performer and singer and has an amazing work ethic. I grew up listening to a lot of female artists, especially from the 90’s, like Aaliyah. We’re in a current age of music where guys in R&B don’t sing much. There isn’t as much male singing in current music, especially with trap being the current [popular] genre.

What’s it like to be a college student while producing your music? What are the benefits or challenges?

I transferred to USC and the amazing creatives here helped me further my vision. There are a lot of resources on campus that people wouldn’t realize, teachers and faculty, producers, guests. The USC network has been really helpful with my music. But it’s hard balancing school work. A lot of artists at school have to drop out because it’s too much, but the networking makes it worth it.

PHOTO: Caleb Griffin

PHOTO: Caleb Griffin

What was the process for creating “MAUI” and its accompanying video like? How different was this compared to the stripped version?

I worked at Starbucks for three years and it was hard to feel empowered working there. I would always sneak into the bathroom -- they were always asking someone to change toilet paper or clean toilets or something no one really wanted to do -- because we had great acoustics in the bathroom and I could sing. I wrote the chorus and the bridge of “MAUI” in the course of one late night shift at Starbucks. I was thinking about the life I wanted to be living while cleaning toilets. It was a juxtaposition of my real life circumstances and living a fantasy life in luxury, like a daydream that turned into a song.

The initial video was a bit of a challenge, it took a lot of people and a lot of creativity. At one point, we had about 60 people working on it. “MAUI (Stripped)” was very different. Not a lot of planning, I styled the video myself. It was very intimate and quick compared to the 60 people that touched “MAUI.” We only had about five people on set, including me and the piano player. It only took an hour to get the take we wanted. It was a lot easier and a lot more raw and intimate. I just had to perform, which was something I do often, so I was a lot more comfortable. With “MAUI,” we were telling a story with visuals.

But both “MAUI” and the stripped version were filmed in my hometown. I’m from Riverside, CA. I felt trapped, like I have to get out and move to L.A, but I keep going back to Riverside to shoot these projects. We filmed the stripped version at the Botanical Garden. All the leaves give it an allusion of a tropical feel, but it’s really just a Geodesic Lath Dome at the Botanical Garden. That’s a consistent thing, between the reality and fantasy of it all.

What inspired you to produce a stripped down version of “MAUI?”  How does it differ in tone and message from the original single?

“MAUI” was my first project that showcased me in a grand way, which is what I wanted. But “MAUI” is ultimately a really intimate song. It is braggadocious in a sense but also has this bold intimacy, so I wanted to deliver it more like a love song than a big production. I also wanted to draw more attention to the lyrics. There was a lot of overstimulation in the first project and I wanted to [with the stripped version] create a curated vocal performance, an intimate call-to-action.

What’s next?

I have two more singles coming out. One is “Eden,” which details my experience as a gay Christian and dealing with my sexuality and revealing more intimate sides of myself. I’m excited to get more material out, to keep performing and developing my artistry. And graduate, I have one more year. Once that happens I can take my music to the next level. I’m writing music that is real and authentic to me and helps me tell my story.

Check out Amir Kelly’s “MAUI” and “MAUI (Stripped)” on YouTube, and other streaming services.

Lead Image Credit: Caleb Griffin